Opinion: New rules for oil and gas operations in Colorado are good news | SteamboatToday.com

Opinion: New rules for oil and gas operations in Colorado are good news

Rodger Steen
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

Senate Bill 19-181, signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis in April 2019, is the vehicle that brings us this good news. SB19-181 changed the mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission from “foster oil and gas production” to “protection of public health, safety,  welfare, the environment and wildlife resources.” 

The effect is currently being felt in counties adjacent to Routt County — Jackson to the east, Moffat to the west, Rio Blanco and Garfield to the southwest and south and on the northern Front Range. It has less of an effect on Routt because we have only a small amount of petroleum production here, and it is only the regional impacts on air, water and wildlife that affect us. If the price of oil increases dramatically, Routt will see more production, so these rules could become more important to us locally.

Some of the bill’s requirements are being administered by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, primarily in the form of tightened hydrocarbon air emission allowances and detection (and repair) of leaks.  This summary is limited to emissions of hydrocarbon gases, which are generally considered to be methane/ethane and volatile organic compounds, which include toxins, such as benzene, and the other aromatics.

In broad terms, the rules strengthen:

  • Mapping of the underground piping from wells to gas plants and refineries to minimize digging through existing pipes and to avoid “Firestone” explosions.
  • Impact analyses for siting of future wells and well fields, so the public and other environmental agencies such as the Colorado Parks and Wildlife can identify collateral and cumulative impacts.
  • Increased minimum distance between oil and gas operations and occupied buildings, including schools.
  • Tighter emission controls on the production equipment, by capture and rerouting to pipeline, and sale of the hydrocarbon gases or incineration of them.
  • Lowering of emission thresholds for triggering the requirement for installation of emission control equipment.
  • Requirement for more frequent compliance monitoring, leak checking and repair.
  • Development of a rule to limit the wasting of the methane that makes up the majority of the gas that exits most wells with the liquids by capturing it for sale (natural gas is mostly methane). Because of the cost of capture, much of the hydrocarbon gases has been dumped directly to the atmosphere. This emission capture becomes one of Colorado’s contribution to the decrease in worldwide greenhouse gases by making it a salable product for uses such as heating our houses or generating electricity and a revenue stream for the citizens.

This list is only a few of the changes that we citizens will see a direct air quality benefit from. There are many other important rule changes from SB19-181 not mentioned here.

Hydrocarbons are very slippery, and leaks are common with oil and gas operations. Moreover, leaking gas is invisible, so leaks have been difficult to detect and often go unrepaired. 

A game-changer leak detection technology has come available over roughly the past five years for scanning oil and gas operations, called a forward-looking infrared camera. This camera allows an operator to remotely scan a project for hydrocarbon leaks — a task that was practically impossible earlier, thus, providing a tool to catch leaks for repair much sooner than before. The use of this tool is now required by these new rules for scanning all operations on a regular frequency in Colorado.

Oil and gas remain essential resources, and production will continue. With these new rules, the operations will be much cleaner, more efficient and safer for both us and the natural environment. 

These major changes in regulation are not complete, and parts will be finalized over the next few years, but enough of the rule making has taken place for us to appreciate the magnitude of changes. We have come a long way to cleaner and safer operations with this recent legislation, and improved technology, and should see more improvements in the coming several years.

Rodger Steen is an air pollution engineer with an undergraduate degree in engineering from Brown University and a master’s in geo-fluid dynamics from the University of Chicago. He is a retired certified consulting meteorologist and a registered professional engineer in Colorado. For the last 10 years of his professional career, he evaluated the air emissions and impacts from the various sources characteristic of oil and gas drilling, production, transport and refining; primarily in Colorado, Wyoming and Alaska. He currently serves as chairman of the Western Colorado Alliance’s Oil and Gas Committee.

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